The days of walking 10 miles, uphill both ways

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Here we are, in the first week of August, and the back-to-school merchandise has been on the shelves in the stores for several weeks already. Going back to school in the fall was always kind of a happy time for me. I loved school, and I got a chance to see the “city” friends that I’d hardly seen all summer.

When I was a kid, I walked 10 miles uphill both ways in the rain and sleet and snow to get to and from school.

I’m kidding, of course. We lived about 2 1/1 miles from school. But walk I did, along with most of the other kids in the neighborhood, and we didn’t think much of it. There was a big group of us – all my Konitzer cousins, the Lutzes, and my sister, Joyce, and me, and along the way we’d pick up another Konitzer family, the Steffens kids and the Ostrengas as we made our way to St. Anthony’s in town.

Those were the days before parochial school kids were allowed to ride the buses that carried the public school kids to school. So we walked.

We were farm kids, and our going and coming from school were at busy times of the day for farmers. Our moms and dads had jobs to do, and it wasn’t convenient for them to stop what they were doing to give us rides. So we were expected to get to school and back home on our own. Unless it was pouring rain; then some parents would carpool us to school or home after school.

And we didn’t mind the walking. It was fun. It was freedom. The stretch of time between home and the classroom liberated us from the eyes of adults. We could be loud, jump around, talk smart and act silly outside the confines of walls and convention.

We were farm kids and pretty unsophisticated and unworldly. Walking back and forth to school allowed us to measure the limited scale of the world as we knew it then, from house to block, street to street, and farm to farm.

We could watch the seasons change and note when the wooly bear caterpillars began their march across the road, the changing of the colors, the opening of the milkweed pods, the budding of the trees, the blossoming of the violets, trilliums, and buttercups.

We took the same route almost every day, partly because there was only one bridge across the river in town. And we were well aware that there was an unwritten law about the “publics” and “Cat’lics” having separate sides of the bridge. We usually met the publics from the east side of town as they were crossing on their side on their way home from Jefferson School. And there was a lot of good-natured taunting that went on but never any real animosity.

Once we got across the bridge, we followed Maple Avenue until it met Konitzer Road where most of us lived. But every once in a while, some of us would take a “shortcut.” (It wasn’t shorter, and it was harder going!) We’d cut through the Steffens farm and make our way along the river to our back 40. We usually ended up with muddy clothes and a lot of burrs stuck in our socks.

Most of the kids in the pack lived close by, but the composition varied as younger brothers and sisters merged in and older ones exited. The older kids made sure the younger children didn’t wander off track or lag behind too much, that everyone got across the bridge safely, the sense of responsibility for ourselves and others fixed firmly by daily routine.

There were no minivan caravans flowing in and out of the school parking lots twice a day, no cellphones ringing in tiny backpacks to summon child to driver. Once in a while, if one of our parents happened to be in town, we’d all pile in the car and get a ride back home. My memory may be a little hazy on this, but I’m sure that sometimes almost a dozen of us would pile in – two and three deep in the back seat and at least three kids crowded into the passenger seat in front.

Obviously, those were different times. None of us was ever hit by a car or snatched off the sidewalk by a weirdo as we walked. These days, pedestrians of all ages seem to be at risk as drivers have to get wherever they’re going right now.

I really think we were healthier kids because we exercised before and after school, and walking was an opportunity to instill responsibility and, best of all, fun.

Am I getting old?

Roger VanHaren can be reached at rjmavh@gmail.com.